This May I started working at a child care center coordinating their community youth programs. Among other things, I have a classroom of 14 first and second graders I work with every day after school.
My center enrolls about 40 kids in its after-school program. They’re split into 3 classrooms, and I run one of them. It was a pretty proud moment for me when my supervisor told me I’d have my own classroom. Not only did this affirm that I’m lead teacher material, it gave me an opportunity I’d been waiting for since I decided to become an educator.
I got to decorate my own classroom.
The room I was given hadn’t been used for much in a while. One of the other teachers had spent time over the summer reorganizing it, but I got to take it over from there. I had shelves, a rug, a couch, some tables, pictures, whiteboards, and a fake tree to work with.
My childcare center follows a particular philosophy of learning—the Reggio Emilia approach. The Reggio Emilia philosophy follows the belief that children aren’t empty sponges waiting for us to fill them—a popular belief in many settings—but that they’re sponges already full of knowledge, curiosity, and potential, and it’s out job as educators to coax that out and guide it.
Rather than teaching them curriculums and integrating structured learning, we set up an environment that’s natural for exploration and self-lead learning. We give them invitations—setting out materials that they can work with if they want; and provocations—laying out a challenge or asking a question that they can attempt to meet or answer.
The approach was developed in the 1970s, as educators in post-World War II Italy looked for new ways to teach their students. It is geared towards younger kids, which is a large portion of what our center focuses on. But we serve a good number of school-age youth as well, and Reggio methods are adapted in age-appropriate ways for the after-school program.
Loose parts are a huge part of Reggio. Loose parts can be almost anything—acorns, beads, pine cones, sticks, leaves, beans, pebbles, string, corks, rings, pop tabs, rocks. These items are traditionally arranged in baskets and laid out on tables or shelves. That’s part of the invitation. They’re always there, and the students are welcome to use and explore them. But there’s no pressure to do so, or to do so with a specific goal in mind. That way, discoveries occur naturally, and it’s a lot more satisfying and exciting for the student. I watch my kids every day as they take out the baskets, sort pieces, mix and match, build, create, and observe. They get so much more out of it than if I’d handed them a bunch of rocks and said “Build a tower!” or beads and said “Make a pattern!”
Blocks are also very versatile. My class has traditional wooden blocks, “natural” looking blocks, wooden train tracks, cut-up sponges, and cups. LOTS of cups. I gave them cups on a whim, looking to fill one of the empty compartments on my block shelf, and they ran with it. Almost every day now, I have multiple students building cup towers, making cup walls, sorting the cups based on size and color, and all sorts of things.
It’s so much more exciting than pre-designed Lego sets or puzzles.
The best things happen when the areas overlap. I’ve seen many glorious palaces built with a mixture of loose parts and blocks.
The classroom layout and environment is also very important. According to Reggio, education consists of three teachers. First, the child; they lead themselves through life and are constantly showing us new things. Second, the traditional educator role: the responsible, trained adult in the room who can ensure safety and guide learning. And third, the classroom itself. Everything about the learning area influences the experiences had inside it.
I spent a lot of time arranging my classroom until it satisfied my needs. I wanted lots of options for play, but not so many they were overwhelming. I filled the shelves with items that got swapped out occasionally with others in the closet. I wanted the classroom to be open, to invite collaborative play and to let the students decide what the spaces would consist of. Wide open floor spaces make for awesome buildings. Putting the art table next to the “creation station” with no barrier left plenty of room for crossing over materials.
I wanted the room to have a natural feel. The art table went by the window to let the outside world and natural lighting inspire their work. The book nook went in a quiet corner, which I equipped with the couch, the rug, the tree, soft pillows and bean bags, a fish tank, and of course bookshelves. The book nook was closed off on one side but not all, so there could be some separation if quiet was needed, but it was not totally isolated, allowing for some versatility there as well.
I wanted the room to be inviting. The first few weeks the students were there, I lay out the invitation for the kids to make art to hang on the walls. I wanted them to feel like the room belonged to them—it wasn’t someone else’s room that they borrowed for a few hours each afternoon.
The walls were soon bedecked with their art: their hand prints, color patterns, abstract shapes, items of interest. The invitation is ongoing, and I still have some of them coming up to me with art asking if it can be put on the walls.
I’ve worked in programs before where we followed a specific schedule and lead curriculums. Those experiences were very rewarding, and I could see the benefits they had on the children I worked with in those settings. It was a huge change for me to arrive at a place where the emphasis was not on what I would be teaching the kids every day, but on what we could all learn together as a community.
I love watching my kids explore the materials laid out for them. I love seeing the amazing things they come up with in exploration and pretend play. I love being able to interact with them on a new level as I explore with them, sometimes sitting back and watching as they guide themselves through the day.
I do have one big thing in my classroom that is not Reggio: the job wheel. Though we don’t follow a specific agenda, each day brings a series of steps we need to follow. We walk from school, eat our snack, and clean up. During the first days, the kids fought over who would walk in front, and it often ended in tears. Some of them didn’t care, but for those that did, it was a pretty big deal.
The one it really mattered to had ADHD. That might have been the cause of the frustration, or it might have just exacerbated it. He would push and yell at others when they tried to walk in front, but didn’t seem to think it was unfair for him to walk in the front every single day. (For ease of reading, I’ll call him A.)
I’d tell him, “You can’t walk in front today, let someone else do it,” and be met with an indignant “Why?”
“Because it’s not fair.”
So, among other things, Line Leader became a job that switched every day. The first day I introduced the job wheel, when A pushed his way to the front, I said, “A, you’re not in the front today.”
I was met with his pout. “Why?”
“Because Line Leader is a job now, and today, it’s B’s job.”
“Oh. Okay.” And A walked to the back of the line.
It felt like a miracle.
The job wheel helps me so I don’t have to hand out plates and wipe the tables every day. But it’s also very important to A now, as well as the others in my class who have ADHD and other needs. For that reason, I’m not getting rid of it, even if it’s not Reggio.
I love my classroom. It’s a place where I can witness creativity, teamwork, struggles, resolutions, tears, laughter, growth, and learning every day. During my interview, my future supervisor could see me bouncing with excitement when she described the Reggio Emilia approach. I’d been trying to explain to people for years that kids come into this world equipped with everything they need, and in most cases, adults don’t build them up, we squish it all back down by convincing them they don’t know anything. If we’re teaching them stuff they already know, how is that going to make them feel? Bad? Wrong? Inadequate?
There are things like the alphabet and how to hold scissors that have to be taught. But a sense of curiosity, wonder, excitement, a love of nature, the drive to learn, a feeling of community, caring for others—that’s part of the package they walk into our lives with. Reggio Emilia takes for granted that all of that is there. It’s not our job to invent our students. It’s our job to meet them where they already are, and give them the chance to invent themselves.
Find out more about the Reggio Emilia apprach here: